The original Pilotwings was an effective launch title for the SNES, because it successfully demonstrated the amazing sprite scaling and rotating capabilities of the the console, effectively named Mode-7. It was colourful, relaxing, and then it forced you through an aggravating helicopter mission for no reason. I enjoyed it, but that helicopter mission can go boil in tar.
It makes sense then that the N64 would leverage the franchise for a similar reason; to show off exactly what the system was capable of. This time around, Nintendo tapped the talent at Paradigm Simulations to create tech that took advantage of the N64’s horsepower. At the time, 3D was in its infancy and developers were struggling to get a handle on the new dimension, but flight simulators seemed to have had the easiest time adjusting. So when a new system needs to prove its horsepower, while still trying to make up for time lost to constant delays, something like Pilotwings is a pretty good choice.
While Pilotwings on the SNES had the pretense of enrolling you in a recreational flight school, the 64 version has no such niceties. Instead, you’re presented with three individual events; the returning hang gliding and rocket belt, and the gyrocopter which replaces the SNES’s biplane. If you miss skydiving, a former main event on the SNES, don’t worry, it’s one of three unlockable events.
You progress by getting enough points in a single event to receive a medal. Unlike the SNES, the events are all separate, so there’s no requirement to ace all three in a single level in order to advance. You can fail as much as you want, and the only punishment is restarting the event itself, which is actually a big relief. The events run a variety of objectives, such as taking pictures from the hang glider or target shooting from the gyrocopter, to the more expected events, like going through rings.
In terms of being a flight sim, it’s pretty light. Like the SNES version, wind and lift is simulated, but a balance has been struck in the controls, making them simple enough to pick up and play. The hang glider is generally the hardest, with worries like stalling and maintaining altitude being constant worries. Overall, there isn’t a big learning curve involved.
JUMBLE HOPPING ACROSS AMERICA
Where Pilotwings 64 really excels is with its environments. Paradigm has some pretty fancy tech on display, allowing huge, mostly detailed environments with tremendous draw distance. They achieved this in much the same way that modern games do; with variable level of detail models the get swapped out when you’re far enough away. It’s actually more effective than you might think. There is noticeable pop-in, but it’s not terribly in your face, which is impressive for a game that was out in 1996.
The environments actually look really great and are packed with small details. The Little USA, a miniaturized island recreation of the United States is the most impressive, featuring a lot of landmarks, a diverse landscape, and little cities dotted all over the place. It’s just kind of sad that the events don’t do a great job at showing it all off. There are a few decent setpiece goals that have you navigating an underground cavern or gliding down a huge waterfall, but a lot of areas are left untouched. There is the ability to just explore at your leisure with the birdman suit event, but it still feels a bit like wasted content.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 40 MINUTES
If there’s one weakness that Pilotwings 64 really suffers from, it’s the brief length. Personally, I was able to medal every event over the course of a morning, clocking in at maybe 3-4 hours. That includes all the bonus events, of which there are nine. Considering that all the missions take advantage of existing assets that are already in place, it’s a bit strange that there isn’t more content. I wouldn’t want the game to stretch things out further than the gameplay can take it, but I didn’t feel like I had my fill by the time I’d finished everything.
It also stops short of actually being challenging. While I certainly don’t want a return of the SNES Pilotwing’s helicopter stages, I felt there was a missed opportunity when it came to some of the events. One of the hardest things to do on the SNES was landing, because it would often shrink the landing area to small islands or even moving platforms. Here, there’s no such obstacles, and the landing targets are all the same size. At best, you have to land in high winds, and even those don’t feel as severe as they were on the 16-bit version. Why is there no hang gliding through city streets or landing on a skyscraper?
This is most disappointing in the sky diving. The most difficult landing is on a mountainside, and even that isn’t too steep of a challenge. Instead, you’re asked to create different formations with your partners; clearing as many as possible before reaching a certain altitude. This limits the sky diving, because you can only get so much variety from posing in the air. So instead of forcing you to pinpoint your landing, every target is the exact same, and that, again, feels like a missed opportunity.
FLY BY JAZZ
Aside from that, I can only really complain about the music which is… weird. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s this strange mix of smooth jazz and synthesized beats. It feels kind of directionless. While the SNES version was a collection of relaxing, buzzy tunes, Pilotwings 64’s soundtrack just feels like it was created because it needed something in the background. Again, it’s not bad, it’s just kind of disappointing.
Aside from that, though, I really enjoyed Pilotwings 64. At the launch of the N64, it was the game that I was most excited by, simply because of its huge worlds, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Its worlds are filled with details that make them worth taking a look at, even if the game isn’t interested in taking you sightseeing. Overall, the game is packed with charm, with a light sense of humour and a relaxed atmosphere. If anything, I wish there was just more of it, or if it would have at least made better use the assets it has.
There was going to be an N64 sequel, again with the help of Paradigm, but it was cancelled. It’s unfortunate, I would have been very excited to see a more fleshed out version that takes greater advantage of the technology. I’m still satisfied with the one N64 version we did get, but I wish I was given a second chance to earn my Pilot’s Wings.
This review was conducted on an N64 console using an original cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.